Over at City Journal California, Ed Ring describes in nauseating detail the real costs of public-employee pensions in the Golden State.
"California has 1.85 million state and local government employees," Ring observes. "Using an average career of 30 years and an average retirement of 20 years, the Golden State is on track to see 1.25 million retired state and local workers collecting, on average, $60,000 per year in retirement pension payments. That's $75 billion per year and growing. Should taxpayers, the vast majority of whom can expect Social Security benefits of no more than $15,000 a year on average, really be expected to fund those retirements? Will they do so willingly? Not likely."
Some commenters, however, aren't convinced.
"Why do we blame the unions for accepting benefits given to them by politicians who, basically, found it expedient to buy their votes and let the next guy worry about paying the bills?" asks reader Paul Friedman. "If you want to hold someone accountable, it's management/government that should be scrutinized and skewered, not the unions."
As the cliché goes, it takes two to tango.
Truth is, many of the people in government who were responsible for making this mess -- the elected officials -- are either out of office or have moved on to something else. California, of course, has term limits. Most of the legislators who voted in 1999 to radically expand the state's public employee pension obligations are long gone. Some of them, however, are in Congress. Current elected officials have a duty and an obligation to make right their predecessors' poor policy decisions.
Adds reader "See Saw": "If all of the private sector detractors would just stand back, and let the public sector pricipals (sic) solve their respective, pension sustainability problems, things will smooth out, in the future."
We're hearing this more and more. Just as the stock market boom in the 1990s made the expansion of pension benefits possible, an eventual economic recovery and new market growth will help the pension funds grow their way out of a $500 billion hole. But the buzz-killers at California's Little Hoover Commission demolished this claim earlier in the year: "Barring a miraculous market advance and sustained economic expansion, no government entity--especially at the local level--will be able to absorb the blow [from rising pensions] without severe cuts to services."
(For more in that vein, read Steve Malanga's harrowing account of the "Compensation Monster Devouring Cities" in the latest City Journal.)
Ring underscores the complexity of the problem when he observes that "simply reducing public-pension benefits won't solve California's budget woes all by itself. The base rates of pay for most government workers would need to shrink, too." At some point, Californians will need to make a choice about the kind of government they want and the government they need. What's obvious is the government they have right now isn't working.